Chaos Reigns

One couldn’t help having a bit of a chuckle when EPCR announced gravely that there were no free weekends to reschedule pandemic-affected games. It was like going back in time eighteen months. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Covid is that nothing can be set in stone any more and flexibility is key. So panic-cancelling games and awarding arbitrary scorelines as if the match had really taken place on a Tuesday afternoon and consisted of four penalty tries is bound to rub a few people up the wrong way.
A sensible approach would have been to delay any adjudication of results until after Round Three, allowing a better assessment of the situation. If there were only a small number of cancellations, and one team clearly caused each of them, by all means award the points then and give everyone a bit of certainty going into the final round, but if there are so many games called off as to make the pool stage a bit of a lottery, then reschedule to a contingency weekend instead.
Of course sense is not really in abundance when it comes to EPCR, which is not really a massive surprise considering every rule change has to be negotiated between representatives of three different leagues, all with different priorities, so we are, as the saying goes, where we are, although the precise location of where it is that we are has yet to be revealed.
The future format of the tournament depends a lot on how badly affected the remaining two rounds are. If they go ahead more or less unscathed, which seems optimistic, then we only need to find one spare weekend. Each of the leagues has at least one weekend free during the Six Nations, despite numerous media claims to the contrary, so it would be possible to postpone a round of league action on the last weekend of January and reschedule the games to there, but it’s probably more likely that the two-legged round of sixteen will be cut to one round (or indeed dropped altogether if further postponements are required). Personally I find the idea of two-legged rugby games a bit silly anyway.
All of that attaches extra importance to finishing in the top four places in the pool to secure a home tie in the round of sixteen or indeed direct access to a quarter-final, depending on how it all pans out. So can Connacht achieve that? Perhaps, but it will require some points and some favours. At this stage I am perhaps arrogantly assuming that a top eight finish is already highly likely. While it’s too early to count chickens, with six points in the bag after two games and so many winless teams (admittedly many with games in hand), Connacht are already odds-on to keep ahead of four teams and progress. The question is, can we stay ahead of eight?
To get a home tie (if indeed that transpires to be the rule), it pretty much goes without saying that we need to win the remaining two games, and that is achievable based on the first two rounds. But we also need no more than three teams to go undefeated. Currently there are five who haven’t lost a game, but Leicester’s fate is in Connacht’s own hands so that leaves four: Harlequins, Munster, Toulouse and Bristol. Connacht would need just one of those four to lose to have a chance of a top-four spot. After that it comes down to bonus points and points difference. Munster would be favourites to win both their games, but they made hard work of Castres in Thomond, so might not have it all their own way in France. Likewise Quins have to take a trip to Cardiff, who may be out to prove a point and, assuming their current Covid issues have passed by then, may have a full deck to deal from for the first time in a while. Both those games are scheduled for Friday night in Round Three, and may set the tone for Connacht’s weekend. Toulouse haven’t been tested properly yet, but already look set fair for a clean sweep, but Bristol have yet to lace up a boot and could easily slip-up in Paris or Llanelli. And of course, the elephant in the room is that any of these teams could end up forfeiting a game along the way, but we wouldn’t want to get through that way now, would we?
So a top-four finish is not beyond the realms of possibility. The big question is, can everyone get the players on the pitch to make it happen?

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